Study Guide

House Divided Speech Quotes

By Abraham Lincoln

  • Slavery

    I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free…Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South. (7, 10)

    Lincoln nicely puts the thesis of his speech at the beginning, just so you know what you're getting yourself into. He's looking at the last decade or so of the United States and how tense (to say the least) the argument over the existence of slavery has become. The country has reached a boiling point where something needs to change…regardless of which way they end up going.

    The new year of 1854 found slavery excluded from more than half the states by state constitutions and from most of the national territory by congressional prohibition. Four days later commenced the struggle which ended in repealing that congressional prohibition. This opened all the national territory to slavery and was the first point gained. (14-16)

    Lincoln's emphasizing how quickly the situation can and did change in the volatile realm of antebellum America. Introducing popular sovereignty into the equation with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of January 1854 immediately started breaking down the restrictions of the Missouri Compromise, leaving the decision over whether or not to include slavery to each state rather than Congress. By the time the Dred Scott case was decided in 1857, Congress lost all remaining power to regulate slavery. This moment, then, was the beginning of the end of the old ways of preventing slavery's expansion.

    Under the Dred Scott decision, 'squatter sovereignty' squatted out of existence, tumbled down like temporary scaffolding; like the mold at the foundry, served through one blast and fell back into loose sand; helped to carry an election and then was kicked to the winds. (43)

    One of Lincoln's more poetic moments, this line appears as an alternate version of the house metaphor he uses periodically throughout the speech. He again uses recognizable physical imagery to give the audience a visualization of how popular sovereignty has been invalidated by the recent Supreme Court ruling. Why does he see the policy as having fallen apart the way he describes it here?

    The people were to be left 'perfectly free,' 'subject only to the Constitution.' What the Constitution had to do with it, outsiders could not then see. Plainly enough, now, it was an exactly fitted niche for the Dred Scott decision to afterward come in and declare the perfect freedom of the people to be just no freedom at all. (59-61)

    Chief Justice Taney wrote at length in the decision for Dred Scott v. Sandford to convince people that given the historical evidence, the Founding Fathers would not have meant for Black people to be citizens of the United States. Lincoln disdainfully references Taney's interpretation of the Constitution as one that goes against one of the document's (and therefore the country's) basic principles.

    We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State. (89)

    Remember that Lincoln is giving this speech in Illinois to a group of Illinois, antislavery voters. The northern states have pretty much never wanted slavery to exist there, so creating an image that makes the threat more real his audience would be an effective way for Lincoln to get his audience's attention. This isn't just some far away issue—it could happen to them.

  • Politics

    The working points of that machinery are:

    First, that no N**** slave, imported as such from Africa, and no descendant of such slave can ever be a citizen of any state in the sense of that term as used in the Constitution of the United States. This point is made in order to deprive the N****, in every possible event, of the benefit of that provision of the United States Constitution which declares that 'the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.' (48-59)

    Lincoln discusses the Dred Scott decision a number of times throughout his speech, and here he summarizes the decision of the Supreme Court, what it means for Black people, and the Court's motivation for giving it. Lincoln focuses on the Constitution, which is the purview of the Supreme Court and therefore what they used to justify their decision. The focus on the Constitution illustrates how powerful the Supreme Court decision was. At the end of the day it's all about the core document of the United States government and legal system, the interpretation of which has a serious, real impact on the American people.

    … whether the holding a N**** in actual slavery in a free state makes him free, as against the holder, the United States courts will not decide, but will leave to be decided by the courts of any slave state the N**** may be forced into by the master. This point is made, not to be pressed immediately but, if acquiesced in for awhile, and apparently endorsed by the people at an election, then to sustain the logical conclusion that what Dred Scott's master might lawfully do with Dred Scott in the free state of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or 1,000 slaves, in Illinois or in any other free state. (53-54)

    Lincoln's getting a little sarcastic here. (Sassy Lincoln.) He repeats the sequence of legal and political events from the Dred Scott case as if they are now the norm. It's sort of a "well apparently this is how things are done now" kind of statement. He focuses on the political mechanisms involved in the case and its implications for the rest of the country

    While the opinion of the Court, by Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott case, and the separate opinions of all the concurring Judges, expressly declare that the Constitution of the United States neither permits Congress nor a Territorial legislature to exclude slavery from any United States territory, they all omit to say whether or not the same Constitution permits a state, or the people of a State, to exclude it. (79)

    The question of the states' ability to regulate slavery is a big issue in the "House Divided" speech. Lincoln talks about how Taney's decision potentially threatens the ability of the states to prevent slavery from spreading into their territories. Again, the events in the judicial branch are playing a key role in the political realm

    Welcome or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown. (88)

    The power of the slaveholders had been significant in American politics since the beginning. That's why Congress had been bending over backwards to keep the balance of slave and non-slave states with legislation like the Missouri Compromise. Part of the reason the North had been so resistant to the expansion of slavery was their dislike of the power concentrated in a small group of elite plantation owners, not just in the economy but in government as well.

  • Memory and the Past

    We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased but has constantly augmented. (3-4)

    Lincoln introduces past events early in his speech, referencing the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the idea of popular sovereignty here. How does he use the passage of time to illustrate his perspective on that legislation?

    Let anyone who doubts carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combination -- piece of machinery, so to speak -- compounded of the Nebraska doctrine and the Dred Scott decision. Let him consider, not only what work the machinery is adapted to do, and how well adapted, but also let him study the history of its construction and trace, if he can, or rather fail, if he can, to trace the evidences of design and concert of action among its chief architects, from the beginning. (12-13)

    The references to the past are less obvious here, but what Lincoln is telling his audience to do is not just think about these two events, but how they happened in the first place. Major acts or legislation doesn't happen in a vacuum. The reasons for these particular things happening, then, indicates a more far-reaching history, which Lincoln argues his audience should be aware of as part of the problem at hand.

    While the Nebraska Bill was passing through Congress, a law case, involving the question of a N****'s freedom, by reason of his owner having voluntarily taken him first into a free state and then into a territory covered by the congressional prohibition… Before the then next presidential election, the law case came to, and was argued in, the Supreme Court of the United States; but the decision of it was deferred until after the election… The election came. Mr. Buchanan was elected, and the endorsement, such as it was, secured. (24, 26, 28-29)

    Not the most exciting quote, but this section represents a large portion of the speech devoted to simply outlining the history of the slavery debate over the past five years or so. Lincoln presents clear, undeniable facts from the past as evidence to support his argument. To be even more convincing, he references a number of different parts of the U.S. government and how they contributed to the situation.

    But when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places and by different workmen -- Stephen, Franklin, Roger, and James, for instance -- and when we see these timbers joined together and see they exactly make the frame of a house or a mill, all the tenons and mortises exactly fitting, and all the lengths and proportions of the different pieces exactly adapted to their respective places, and not a piece too many or too few, not omitting even scaffolding, or, if a single piece be lacking, we see the place in the frame exactly fitted and prepared yet to bring such piece in -- in such a case, we find it impossible not to believe that Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James all understood one another from the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first blow was struck. (73)

    The "house divided" metaphor does come around a few times throughout the speech, and here is one of the most potent. What is Lincoln's point here, and how is he using the metaphor to illustrate it?

    Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand strong.

    We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us.

    Of strange, discordant, and even, hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy. (120-122)

    Here is a moment where Lincoln references the recent past to show hopefulness rather than concern. The Republican Party (his audience), the most anti-slavery party by far in the country, has grown extremely quickly since its inception only two years earlier. It would continue to do so, winning Lincoln the presidency in another two years. A lot of worrisome things have happened over the past two years, but also, the opposition to those events has also grown in strength.

  • Dissatisfaction

    We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased but has constantly augmented. (3-4)

    Lincoln directly challenges the stated promise of popular sovereignty, which was to resolve the crisis over the expansion of slavery. He flat-out says it not only didn't work, it made it worse. Knowing that Lincoln had been a consistent Free Soiler, and therefore not a fan of popular sovereignty from the beginning, the frustration with the outcome is palpable.

    I do not understand his declaration, that he cares not whether slavery be voted down or voted up, to be intended by him other than as an apt definition of the policy he would impress upon the public mind—the principle for which he declares he has suffered so much and is ready to suffer to the end. And well may he cling to that principle! If he has any parental feeling, well may he cling to it. That principle is the only shred left of his original Nebraska doctrine. (39-42)

    Lincoln really goes after Douglas in the second half of the speech. Here he attacks Douglas' ambivalence towards this hot-button issue, as well as the weakness of his idea. Douglas has fought for a policy under which he himself doesn't have to choose a particular side, and caused chaos in the area where it was actually implemented. Lincoln's dissatisfaction with Douglas' doctrine would continue to be a central point in the ensuing Lincoln-Douglas debates.

    Why was the amendment expressly declaring the right of the people voted down? Plainly enough, now, the adoption of it would have spoiled the niche for the Dred Scott decision. Why was the Court decision held up? Why even a senator's individual opinion withheld till after the presidential election? Plainly enough, now, the speaking out then would have damaged the 'perfectly free' argument upon which the election was to be carried. Why the outgoing President's felicitation on the endorsement? Why the delay of a reargument? Why the incoming President's advance exhortation in favor of the decision? These things look like the cautious patting and petting of a spirited horse preparatory to mounting him when it is dreaded that he may give the rider a fall. (62-70)

    At this point Lincoln had reviewed, in pretty extensive detail, the legal and political steps over the past few years that have contributed to the current situation, where slavery could possibly be forced upon the North. How does Lincoln use language to show his frustration with the outcome?

    But "a living dog is better than a dead lion." Judge Douglas, if not a dead lion for this work, is at least a caged and toothless one. How can he oppose the advances of slavery? He don't care anything about it. His avowed mission is impressing the "public heart" to care nothing about it. (98-102)

    One of Lincoln's big problems with Stephen Douglas seems to be Douglas' personal ambivalence on the slavery issue, which is extremely important to Lincoln and his audience. He paints his opponent as someone who's not only noncommittal on this extremely divisive problem, but also is encouraging others to follow his example. Considering how tense and significant the debate was by 1858, that kind of sentiment in such an atmosphere would definitely cause resentment among those who were passionate about one side or the other.

    But clearly, he is not now with us—he does not pretend to be—he does not promise to ever be. (118)

    Lincoln's final jab at Stephen Douglas comes after he claims he doesn't want to misrepresent the senator's ideas and therefore prevent Douglas from becoming an ally. Clearly, Lincoln doesn't believe an alliance is actually very realistic.

  • Fear

    Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.

    Have we no tendency to the latter condition? (10-11)

    Early on, Lincoln introduces the idea that will occupy much of his speech. There is a real chance that the U.S. will become 100% slave states. If his audience thought that impossible, he will soon present a laundry list of evidence to prove the opposite.

    Under the Dred Scott decision, "squatter sovereignty" squatted out of existence, tumbled down like temporary scaffolding; like the mold at the foundry, served through one blast and fell back into loose sand; helped to carry an election and then was kicked to the winds. (43)

    On the surface, popular (or "squatter") sovereignty might seem like a very reasonable, fair approach to dealing with slavery in the new states. Lincoln's unusually poetic language here tells us not to get our hopes up, because that method of resolution has completely failed. When such a democratic and theoretically reasonable policy is so demolished, what hope is there to solve the problem? Not to mention how quickly it all fell apart—which implies that more could be destroyed just as quickly.

    Second, that, "subject to the Constitution of the United States," neither Congress nor a territorial legislature can exclude slavery from any United States territory. This point is made in order that individual men may fill up the territories with slaves, without danger of losing them as property, and thus enhance the chances of permanency to the institution through all the future. (51-52)

    Lincoln consistently reminds his audience what's at stake here: the ability to prevent the slaveholding elite of the South from invading their northern territories. He's describing the outcome of the Dred Scott decision, indicating that the Supreme Court has taken the country one big step closer to this scenario. By painting a picture of the potential future, Lincoln gives his audience a picture to visualize that would strike fear into any 1858 Republican voter.

    In what cases the power of the states is so restrained by the U.S. Constitution, is left an open question, precisely as the same question, as to the restraint on the power of the territories was left open in the Nebraska act. Put that and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits. (84-85)

    Once again, the combination of the Dred Scott decision and the Kansas-Nebraska Act have, in Lincoln's words, created a situation rife with problems. What precisely is the threat that Lincoln is describing here?

    Of strange, discordant, and even, hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy. (122)

    Although a bit more hopeful and motivational than most of the other parts of his speech, this end quote uses descriptive language to create an image of the Republicans fighting against the wealthy pro-slavery tide. Words like "battle," "hot fire," and "enemy" are meant to give the audience a sense of accomplishment, but also imply there was something super-scary to vanquish in the first place.

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